Track owner De Francis seeks state aid He raises possibility Preakness may have to be moved from city

August 16, 1996|By Thomas. W. Waldron and Jon Morgan | Thomas. W. Waldron and Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Angered by the governor's rejection of slot-machine gambling, the owner of Pimlico and Laurel racetracks is mounting a campaign to win state financial assistance, even invoking the specter of moving the Preakness Stakes out of Baltimore.

Track owner Joseph A. De Francis says that he needs some type of help from the state or he could well be forced to close Pimlico and sell or move the Preakness, one of the sport's most important and lucrative races and one of the city's most noteworthy events.

"Without some assistance from the state, I don't see how we can keep the Preakness at Pimlico," said De Francis, who has been repeating the warning in newspaper and radio interviews all week. "Somebody will have to show me how to do it. The economics just don't make sense."

He suggested that he would move the Preakness to Laurel if Pimlico were to close, but he did not rule out selling the race to an out-of-state track.

DeFrancis said he does not know what kind of help he and the rest of the racing industry might seek from the state, but he has floated the idea of government assistance in a $200 million refurbishment of his two thoroughbred tracks.

He said bluntly that it was up to Gov. Parris N. Glendening to find alternatives now that he has ruled out letting the tracks install slot machines to boost profits.

"I think the ball is squarely in the governor's court," De Francis said. "We're all very anxious to sit down with the governor and hear what his plan is."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a key supporter of racing in the legislature, reacted sharply to De Francis' comments.

"Mr. De Francis would be very ill-advised to close Pimlico, especially in light of the major concessions that the state has very generously given him over the last several years," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat.

"I don't know what more we can do for the racing industry than we've already done," he said. "We've cut the state tax rate, given them off-track betting, Sunday wagering. We've worked very hard to subsidize this very important aspect of Maryland history."

Any effort to close Pimlico and move the Preakness would undoubtably face strong opposition from other legislators as well. State law governing the highly regulated industry requires De Francis to offer at least 90 days of racing at Pimlico.

The law also prohibits the track owner from moving the Preakness to another Maryland track barring an "emergency," and gives the state the right to match any offer by an out-of-state track to purchase the famous race.

Despite De Francis' worries about the future, Laurel and Pimlico enjoyed record profits last year, thanks mainly to an increase in wagering on out-of-state races beamed into courses here.

Nonetheless, the Maryland racing industry was united in its desire to have slots to compete with Delaware courses, where the devices have been generating enormous profits since December.

Glendening announced Monday that he would veto any slots legislation during his time in office, effectively short-circuiting the issue for the foreseeable future. The governor said he was worried that casino companies were using the possibility of slots at race courses to gain entree to Maryland.

Glendening said that while he would not support slots, he did want to keep the racing industry "healthy," specifically mentioning concern about the Preakness.

Yesterday, a spokesman for the governor said state officials are looking at how other states have helped their racing industries in recent years. "It's basically in the study process," said spokesman Mike McKelvin.

Del. John S. Morgan, a Republican whose district includes some of the Laurel track's property, said he would be willing to consider using some state money to fix up the tracks but would want the investment tied to measures that would improve their marketing and operation.

He said the tracks are overly oriented to the telecast races and have not done enough to draw fans interested in live racing. "All we are seeing now is a lot of complaining about slots. That is not a strategic vision," Morgan said.

De Francis said he is not trying to threaten anyone with his assertion that Pimlico may have to close. But, he said, he wants to give fair warning to state officials in case that day ever approaches.

"I'll say it as loudly and clearly as I can: The Preakness is not a bargaining chip in this process," De Francis said. "But I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place."

In recent years, some investors have expressed interest in buying the tracks. Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos approached De Francis two years ago with an eye toward buying and fixing up the tracks, according to a source.

R. D. Hubbard, a California-based track operator, also was close to a deal to buy the tracks several years ago, but De Francis backed out at the last minute.

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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